The Jean Gilbert we knew
Distressed by the picture painted of Jean Gilbert in court and by some media during her husband’s trial for her murder, Jean’s friends and family tell of her deeply troubled marriage and remember her as a loving mother and honourable woman
ON TUESDAY, August 28th 2007, Máirín Ní Bhriain was putting the candles on her son’s birthday cake when she heard a newsflash on the radio stating that an unnamed woman had been killed in Dublin. “They said ‘Castleknock’ and my blood ran cold. I knew. I thought, ‘He’s killed her’. I rang Blanchardstown Garda station, and they wouldn’t tell me. So then I rang Blanchardstown hospital and I got on to a nurse. I said, ‘Is it Jean Gilbert?’ And the nurse said yes.”
Sinéad Kerins was on a bus that Tuesday evening, bringing dinner out to her elderly mother, when she heard the news. “It was the first thing I thought of: he killed her.”
Over the following year, Jean Gilbert’s family have had to come to terms not only with her death but with taking care of her three traumatised children, aged 12, nine and five. Two now live with Jean’s brother, Robert Gilbert, and his wife Heather and their children, and the third lives with Jean’s sister and brother-in-law and their children.
Jean’s children possess few mementos of their mother or objects from their old home. David Bourke, their father and Jean’s husband, who was convicted of her murder on March 30th, had their Castleknock home cleared by summer 2008. Family photographs and keepsakes were swept into storage as if Jean was to be erased, even from the memory of her children.
Speaking to The Irish Timesat his home, Robert Gilbert says that in June 2007, two months before she died, he began phoning his sister to check she was all right. “She’d say, ‘I’m okay. Thanks. Thanks for the support.’ Then she’d tell me not to phone on the house phone, or when David was there – to phone in the morning when he was at work.”
THE TROUBLES IN Jean’s and Bourke’s marriage were not recent, or sparked by her relationship with Robert Campion, as Bourke subsequently claimed in court, but had festered for 10 years before her death. Before the summer of 2007 Jean Gilbert had never spoken about them.
Bourke asserted during his trial that he and Jean had an “ordinary marriage”. But her friends had become increasingly worried about her physical safety immediately before the murder. Fionnuala Halpin has two sons who are the same age as Jean’s and Bourke’s two boys, and the four children sometimes played together. In June 2007 Jean finally told her husband that the marriage was over.
“In the first week of August I was on the phone to Jean. I told her that I’d heard somewhere that in most cases of domestic violence that end up in murder the most dangerous time is when the woman is trying to leave. I just wanted to say that to her,” says Halpin.
That warning about the risk to a woman’s life when leaving a violent marriage was precipitated by Jean telling Halpin that Bourke had smashed their large, framed wedding photo in front of one of their children. And Jean did not deny that hers was a violent marriage. “She was stoic, is what I would say,” says Halpin.
Ní Bhriain, Kerins and Halpin are Buddhists, and their contact with Jean was very regular – almost daily. Kerins and Ní Bhriain had known Jean before her marriage, as I had myself, 20 years ago, when I was a Buddhist.
All three women were interviewed by gardaí when Jean was murdered, and they attended the court hearing. Nothing could have prepared them for the court case, in which Bourke was found guilty of her murder.
Kerins says: “In the absence of Jean’s voice she was portrayed as a caricature. To listen to a portrayal of this so-called happy marriage was very upsetting.”
Ní Bhriain was also in court, absorbing the media coverage of what was said there. “What concerns me is the children have lost their mother and they’ve also lost their good view of their mother, as it was reflected back to them through the press. The prosecution achieved their aim, but I believe, in the court process, Jean’s reputation was absolutely savaged. People are left thinking that this nice middle-class man, with whom many people could identify, couldn’t possibly carry out this dreadful act, and the only way he could have done is to make her out to be this appalling creature.”
Her friends had known Jean to be an honourable woman who put all her energy into her children. She was a conscientious modern mother: she breastfed her babies, she brought them to homeopaths, she dealt with their allergies. She enjoyed her kids.
Jean was neat and low-key and somewhat shy, and had difficulty expressing her feelings. “She didn’t give much away,” says Ní Bhriain. “She was a trooper. She’d keep going even when things were tough. She didn’t moan. She didn’t complain. She didn’t gossip.”
Jean had been working since she was 17, and later qualified as a lab technician and worked as a food scientist. Before her marriage she had bought her own house in Castleknock – the house in which she would later be murdered – and had her own car, even in the economically bleak 1980s. Back then she was the picture of an independent woman.
Jean and Bourke got married on October 14th, 1995, at the Castle Hotel in Killiney, south Co Dublin.
“They seemed solid enough,” remembers Ní Bhriain. “They were both from similar backgrounds. I don’t think that he had any career at that time and later she would find that very difficult. He was quite passive about finding work. At the beginning she was the main breadwinner.”
Her friends emphasise that Jean was a very private person who did not often speak about her marriage. “Very early in the marriage the only thing she said was that David watched an inordinate amount of television and that this drove her crazy,” says Ní Bhriain. “Sometimes she’d say that he had watched television all weekend – sometimes 50 hours a week. Then she stopped talking about it. You got the impression that it was bit lacklustre. But then maybe they settled into a groove, as you do when you have small children and are surrounded by domestic chores.”
JEAN’S FIRST CHILD, her daughter, was born in 1996 after a traumatic delivery – the deliveries of all Jean’s babies were difficult – in which the child nearly died. Jean was left so exhausted by that first birth, and by her job, that when she was made redundant two years later she seemed relieved. Bourke was now the sole breadwinner in the family, and he was eager to have more children.
The pregnancies came rapidly. Ní Bhriain says, “Jean told me later that her intimate life with David had caused her unspeakable suffering. I was shocked and dismayed at what she had endured in isolation.”
But at the time Jean didn’t say a word. She was getting on with things. Money was very tight for Jean, now a stay-at-home mother. “Later she said that David would only give her money for the supermarket. She was not allowed to have any control over their money. Yet she was so frugal. She was not a spender. She could feed an army on a pound.”
Kerins says that “the first time I started to get seriously worried was in the autumn of 2006. When I asked her about David, she just said that he watched the telly all the time, that he had few friends, and also about his relationship with the children. That she wished that he would be less critical of the children.”
Kerins suggested to Jean that she and Bourke do something together, like go dancing, “and it was the quality of the silence, and the way she looked – she said nothing – that I just knew there was something seriously wrong in the marriage. And that she was suffering.”
In January of 2007 there were visible signs of the stress Jean was under, as her weight began to plummet. Kerins says Jean, who was 5ft 4in and not a big build, was so thin that she was wearing children’s clothes. Kerins and Ní Bhriain manufactured an excuse for the three friends to meet at Ní Bhriain’s house every Wednesday.
On May 24th, 2007, Kerins, unable to watch the decline any longer, confronted Jean during one of their daily telephone conversations. “I roared down the phone, ‘Tell me, tell me what’s wrong.’ I said I wasn’t getting off the phone until she told me, that she had to tell me, because I loved her and cared about her. This is when she broke down and started sobbing. She said her life with David had been hell for years. That he was controlling, manipulative and that she had concerns about his behaviour with the kids. Jean talked at length. She talked about his control with money in detail, and how she had to appease his control in everything she did. I was reeling with shock.”
Jean had three months to live. On the Tuesday following that telephone conversation, May 29th, Jean went to Ní Bhriain’s house and spoke about her marriage. The dam holding back years of silence had broken. “It was like stream of consciousness,” remembers Ní Bhrian. “And the pain with which she spoke. She painted a really grim picture. She said things had got so bad at the beginning of the year that she’d resolved she would take no more of it. I didn’t ask for the gory details.”
ROBERT CAMPION, AN old boyfriend of Jean’s, did not make contact with her until April 2007, and she did not meet him face to face until the following July. Meanwhile, on June 15th, Jean met her husband in a local pub to tell him that she wanted a divorce. Jean told Kerins she brought him there because she “‘wanted him away from the knives’. And I said ‘What knives? What the hell has been going on with knives?’ And she just shrugged and wouldn’t answer.”
To their dismay, her friends found out that, on that occasion in the pub, Jean told her husband about Campion, a man she had not met in 17 years. But Jean would not agree to see Campion until she had told her husband her marriage was over. “She was as straight as a die,” says Halpin. “If she’d snuck around behind his back she might still be alive. She tried to do everything cleanly.”
Her friends found Bourke’s subsequent plea of manslaughter hard to take, and it was a point that remained contentious throughout the trial.
“It seemed clear to me that the judge adopted an attitude to the case in which he believed it should have been a manslaughter charge,” says Ní Bhriain. “Indeed he said so in court, in the way he addressed the prosecution in the absence of the jury, and in his comments to the jury. He made it clear what his view was, that it should have been a manslaughter charge, and that David had had his nose rubbed in it.”
Jean, who had been silent for so long, had been silenced for good. It seems that in the summer of 2007 she had some presentiment of her impending death, in one instance talking about who she wanted to be notified should anything happen to her. She left clear instructions with two individuals that she wished to be cremated, and named the place where she her ashes were to be scattered. One of the people she gave these instructions to was one of her young children. Jean’s husband killed her on August 28th.
A statement from the Gilbert family
IT IS with great regret and heavy hearts that we find it necessary to break our silence and speak for Jean. The past month has been very difficult for us to bear, with the great outpouring of sympathy for David Bourke, and the very unkind words used to describe Jean. David Bourke was not the man he claimed to be, and Jean was certainly not the woman that David Bourke would like to portray.
As we said after the verdict, we are unable to comment in detail on Jean’s very sad marriage to David Bourke. Jean told her side of the story to her immediate family on June 20th, 2007. That night she arrived at our parents’ house, looking pale and extremely thin. She started by saying: “This is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I am fed up living a lie that everything is all right when it’s not.”
On June 20th, 2007, Jean also told us: “If David had been a good man I would never have been interested in making regular contact again with Bob Campion.”
Nothing further about Jean’s relationship with David Bourke can be revealed by our family, except to say that as far back as 1997 an incident occurred that marked the beginning of a frightful time for her.
Our priority now is her three grieving children. These three children are Jean’s future and we must protect them.
Anyone who had the pleasure of knowing Jean knows she was a truly wonderful person with a great sense of humour and an infectious laugh. No words can describe how much we all miss her. Jean was by no means the calculating, irresponsible, selfish woman portrayed by some elements of the press. She was a loving, kind and responsible person who loved her children deeply. The fact that she was contemplating leaving the family home – which, incidentally, she had bought before she met David Bourke – shows how unbearable the situation had become for her.
We would ask the public to please respect our decision and let us grieve privately for Jean, and also allow her finally rest in peace.
The Gilbert family
IN COURT: THE FACTS OF THE TRIAL
Jean Gilbert (45) was murdered by her husband, David Bourke, in front of their young children at their home in Castleknock in August 2007.
During the his trial, which started on March 23rd, Bourke admitted the killing, but denied murder. He claimed that he had been provoked beyond reason by his wife’s recent affair with an English musician, Robert Campion.
Until Campion had entered their lives, claimed Bourke, he and Gilbert had had “an ordinary marriage”. According to Bourke, she had been the love of his life.
On March 25th, in a break in Bourke’s testimony, the judge, Justice Barry White, in the absence of the jury, told prosecuting counsel, Isobel Kennedy, “ whoever decided this is murder rather than manslaughter should bring themselves into court”.
Kennedy replied that this was a matter for the jury. However, the issue of whether Bourke had been helplessly provoked to murder his wife – had “had his nose rubbed in it”, as the judge commented – in the days before the murder was hotly debated, not just in court, but in the media after the trial.
On March 30th, the jury, composed of seven men and five women, found Bourke guilty of murder by a majority of 11 to 1. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. He is appealing his conviction.